Retail focuses on customer-centricity and omnichannel offerings

The retail sector has refocused on customer-centricity as a strategy and is now focusing on omnichannel engagement and merging the online and offline worlds by bringing digital experiences into brick and mortar channels to drive more memorable experiences for consumers.

Omnichannel is part of the evolution of multichannel communications and central to the customer-centric approach in retail. It essentially integrates multichannel customer interactions with all other customer touchpoints and puts your business wherever your customers are: on the high street and online, on mobile and across all your marketing activities.

The world’s biggest brands understand this, including Disney, Virgin Atlantic, Bank of America, Burberry, and many others. They appreciate the need to deliver consistent experiences across every customer touchpoint, to the extent that 99% of retailers have now implemented at least one mobile technology in their stores, highlighting the importance of mobile in transforming the shopping experience.

Consumer control

The push towards customer-centricity and omnichannel communications has already made an impact in many industries, including banking, insurance and even healthcare, but it is most prevalent in retail, where connected intelligence is putting the consumer in control. A recent survey found that 96% of 700 retail IT decision-makers are using mobile technology in-store to optimize point-of-sale activity and to personalize customer experiences.

Walker Sands’ influential 2019 Future of Retail report claims: “All purchase decisions come down to two factors: convenience and connection. Consumers shopping online expect a convenience that goes beyond the in-store experience, and one of the few drivers of loyalty in a purchase decision is a connection with the brand. It’s no longer about just creating a seamless online-to-in-store experience. Instead, it’s using online and in-store platforms to facilitate a deeper connection that feels worth having.”

The need to invest in omnichannel – and the growth opportunity of doing it correctly – has changed how retailers view business expansion.

While retailers once focused on expansion of their brick and mortar chains of stores, the industry mindset has now shifted to recognize and accept the importance of digital as a way to expand and generate new business. A Shopgate survey found that nearly half of consumers decide where to shop based on whether a retailer offers a buy online, pick up in-store service, demonstrating the need for showcasing in omnichannel, too.

Delivering consistency across all these channels was previously something only big brands could achieve. The democratization of technology means smaller brands have a chance to play the game – take Shopify’s recent move to deploy online chatbot services for its 800,000 merchants, for example.

This kind of digital transformation is essential. If you can’t reach your already connected customers where they want to be, then they will use someone else.

Digital showrooming

Consumer expectations have changed when it comes to retail. They already expect service-driven features such as home shipping, coupons and price matching and regularly use their smartphones to research and compare prices, but the evidence now shows they are becoming more comfortable making bigger shopping decisions using tech. Digital showrooming is a technique that is gathering momentum: the practice of consumers visiting a retail store to try, touch, feel and compare products in a physical environment before buying it online. It’s a technique that helps drive an emotional engagement for shoppers and give them a richer overall experience.

Almost half of consumers say they are more open to purchasing a big-ticket item like a car or a grill online than they were a year ago; 32% receive at least one Amazon package each week. Despite this, 66% of consumers claim to be buying less, but the existence of an in-store shopping experience is still significant, with 25% of consumers feeling more connected with a brand when they visit a store.

Trends among millennials are even more pronounced: 43% of consumers aged 18 to 34 say they receive one or more Amazon packages per week; 65% of millennials are more likely to purchase from brands committed to sustainability while one-in-five don’t care who they buy from, so long as the experience is convenient, and the price is right.

“With more available resources online, consumers have increased focus on research ahead of major purchases. If a consumer is entering the store, especially to make a larger purchase, it’s very likely they have done research ahead of time…nearly 9 out of 10 consumers (87%) now begin product searches online,” says Walker Sands.

Brand opportunity

Here’s a few illustrative examples of how big brands are embracing omnichannel:

  • International cosmetics firm Rituals has deployed mobile technologies across its business, from business management in the back room to customer-focused PoS systems and skin style apps. It is also developing VR experiences to help customers shop. Joost van der Zwaan, IT Infrastructure Architect, is bullish about AR and VR, saying it “will be a big thing in retail
  • After buying highly successful and widely used run tracking app Fitness Keeper, sports equipment and shoe manufacturer Asics redeveloped the app to provide users with targeted, contextually relevant marketing, such as suggesting high-vis clothing to night runners
  • Luxury UK swimwear brand deployed in-store retail support technology to deliver consistent customer experiences across its chain of different stores, including things like automatic delivery of e-receipts
  • Starbucks Reward Card is gaining recognition as a gold standard for such cards. Not only is it connected, but it is possible to check and reload your card using the app, website, in-store or phone. Changes are updated across channels in real-time. What does this mean? It means you can find your balance is low after you order a coffee, charge your account via the app and be able to pay for the drink by the time the cashier swipes your card
  • Oasis offers physical stores, an e-commerce site and a mobile app, fusing these together to create an omnichannel experience. It lets customers quickly find out what’s in stock, empowers them to order items held in stock in any retail premises, and enables easy online and physical purchase, including the chance to book personal shopping slots with stylists. One unique deployment: it invited top customers to join its seasonal product preview event, encouraging them to vote on what they saw using QR codes on their devices. “Customer experience is paramount,” said Oasis Customer Director, Briony Garbett. “In an ever-challenging retail landscape, the winning brands will be those that offer the customer the most engaging and convenient experience”

These changes in consumer expectation aren’t just confined to high street retail, and meeting these expectations across every consumer touchpoint is vital to success in retail.

What happens next?

Tech innovation is constant, and retail is reaping the developments. For example, with up to 61% of shoppers interested in using AR, it’s no surprise that brands, including Lego and IKEA, are developing solutions around it: Lego with virtual cinematic experiences that work with Apple smartphones and IKEA’s highly successful AR product catalog (IKEA Place) that lets consumers try products in virtual spaces in their homes.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling use cases around targeted in-store promotions through visual identification of shoppers’ demographic profiles like age and gender, creating contextual experiences that drive up engagement. Another example of cutting-edge technological solutions is Amazon Alexa, which lets shoppers order goods by voice or set automatic re-order settings based on recent purchases, helping ensure you never run out of fundamental goods like printer toner or laundry detergent. There are exciting times ahead for retail.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.